What will ignite the fuse that sets off the next big market crash? Greece, as it tries to cling to—or exit—the European currency union? China, whose economy and stock market are already showing signs of stress? Or will it be something closer to home, say, a snafu by the Federal Reserve as it attempts to unwind years of loose monetary policy?
The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. While anyone can come up with a long list of candidates that could cause the next downturn, it’s impossible to know in advance what the actual trigger will be. I’ve learned this from personal experience. Not long before the 2008 financial crisis I interviewed Richard Bookstaber, a risk expert who had just published A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Innovation, a book in which he explains how our increasingly complex financial system is evolving beyond regulators’ ability to control—and our ability to predict its behavior.
During that interview, he ticked off a litany of problems that had the potential to topple the economy and the financial markets, including arcane financial instruments like credit swaps, emerging market funds, risky hedge funds, even overheated housing and mortgage markets. I remember thinking at the time, credit swaps, sure; emerging markets, yeah, I could see that; hedge funds, definitely. But inflated housing prices and problematic mortgages bringing the U.S. and global markets to their knees? It seems obvious today with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. But before the financial crisis, it seemed rather far-fetched.
Fortunately, positioning your portfolio to weather the next big downturn doesn’t require that you be able to foresee when the setback will occur or what will instigate it. Rather, all you have to do is assure you have your savings invested in a mix of stocks and bonds you would be equally comfortable sticking with if the market continues to make it to higher ground—or gets whacked for a sizable loss from a development everyone anticipates or from a shock that comes completely out of the blue. In other words, it’s not as important that you be able to predict the timing or the cause of a rout as it is that you are prepared to handle the consequences.
How to Disaster-Proof Your Portfolio
The first step is to review your current holdings. Over the course of a long bull market, it’s easy to end up with a portfolio that’s more aggressive than you think. Which is why it’s important to do a quick inventory of what you own. Basically, you want to divide your investments into three broad categories—stocks, bonds, and cash—so you know what percentage each represents of your overall holdings. If you have funds that own a mix of those asset categories, such as a balanced fund or target-date retirement fund, you can plug its name or ticker symbol into Morningstar’s Instant X-Ray tool to see how it divvies up its assets.
Once you know your portfolio’s stocks-bonds mix, you want to make sure you’ll be comfortable with that mix should stock prices head south. The simplest way to do that: complete a risk tolerance-asset allocation questionnaire like the free one Vanguard offers online. After you answer 11 questions about how long you plan to keep your money invested, how you react after losses, and what kind of volatility you think you can handle, the tool will recommend a mix of stocks and bonds consistent with your answers. The tool also provides performance stats showing how the recommended mix, as well as others more conservative and more aggressive, have performed in past markets good and bad.
You can then see how that recommended mix compares with how your portfolio is actually divvied up between stocks and bonds. If there’s a significant difference—say, your portfolio consists of 80% stocks and 20% bonds and the tool suggests a 50-50 blend—you need to decide whether it makes sense to stick with your current mix or ratchet back your stock holdings. One way to do that is to calculate how both mixes would have fared during the 2008 financial crisis, when stocks lost nearly 60% of their value from the market’s 2007 high to its 2009 low and bonds gained roughly 8%. By comparing their performance, you can decide which portfolio you’d be more comfortable holding if the next downturn generates comparable losses.
Keep in mind, though, that limiting short-term setbacks isn’t your only investment objective. If it were, you could simply plow all your dough into federally insured savings accounts and CDs. If you’re investing for a retirement that’s decades away, you also need capital growth to boost the size of your nest egg. And even if you’re retired, you likely still want to have at least some of your nest egg in stocks to assure that your savings can generate income that will stand up to inflation throughout retirement. To get a sense of whether the mix you’ve decided will give you a decent shot at meeting such goals, you can plug your investments, along with information such as how much you have saved and how many years you expect to live in retirement, into a good retirement income calculator.
So let the pundits engage in their endless guessing game of when the next meltdown will occur and what incident or set of factors will precipitate it. But don’t take it too seriously. It’s ultimately a fruitless exercise, and one that could end up wreaking havoc on your portfolio if you make the mistake of actually acting on their speculation and conjecture.
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